In a keynote address at Velocity New York 2014, Mikey Dickerson described his journey from working for Google to working in the West Wing of the White House, leading the US Digital Services group. He told the story of how a three-day review turned into a nine-week “herculean effort” by a team working 17 hours per day, 7 days per week to get HealthCare.gov up and running. The challenges, he stressed, boiled down to a few big, though basic, things — building a monitoring system, creating a war room to provide development direction and organization, and establishing a sense of urgency to get the problems fixed. “This very formidable obstacle, when you pushed on it even a little bit, fell apart; it was made out of sand,” he said. “Nothing we did was that hard; it was labor intensive, but it was not hard.”
Returning home, he explained, was something of a culture shock: “I went back to my regular job, and tried really hard to care about it again. It was hard; there was nothing wrong with the job I had before, but from what I had just seen, HealthCare.gov is just one of hundreds of such projects.” Calling for a “commitment escalation,” he stressed that we need to rethink how we’re allocating our resources and what we choose to work on:
“The impact [of our work on HealthCare.gov] on the country was…totally out of proportion to anything I could have hoped to accomplish in my old job. … This is real life. … Our country is the place where we allocate our resources through the collective decisions all of us make. … Engineering is critical to the functioning of society at this point; this is not the thing you could ignore in the corner like it was 20 or 30 years ago.
“We allocate our resources to the point where we have thousands of engineers working on things like picture-sharing apps, when we’ve already got dozens of picture-sharing apps. We do not allocate anybody to [problems such as] this handful of things that I’ve been asked to staff and do not have adequate staff to do: kids in foster care are regularly victims of identity theft because a whole lot of people have access to their identifying information. … Food stamp distribution gets hung up a lot of times for really stupid reasons; the process of immigration is very long and has expensive fees, and isn’t always reliable; Federal pensions are literally processed in a limestone mine in Boyers, PA — search for “sinkhole of bureaucracy”; it’s a real thing. And the ones that everyone knows about, like the VA; these are all problems that need attention. … These problems are fixable; these problems are important, but they require you to choose to work on them.”
You can watch Dickerson’s keynote in the following video: